‘Levelling up’ the UK regions

Dr Peter O’Brien, Executive Director

A very Happy New Year to YU members, partners and friends, and best wishes for a successful 2020.

I was fortunate enough to be able to take time out over the festive period to pause, recharge the batteries and spend some quality time with the family. During the past two weeks I did, however, keep one eye on the latest stories in relation to the new government’s plans for local and regional development following the Conservative Party’s victory in last month’s General Election. In particular, a couple of news items caught my attention, both of which relate directly to YU’s strategic objective of ensuring that the higher education sector collectively in Yorkshire plays a stronger role in attracting more investment and greater prosperity to the region.

First, there was a story two days after Christmas about government plans to revise the Treasury’s Green Book rules on investment to enable more emphasis to be placed on investment for the purposes of achieving greater ‘well-being’ and not just GVA. Press coverage this week suggests that these changes will feature in the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s Budget statement on 11 March.

Research by Andy Brown and colleagues at the University of Leeds Business School, as part of the iBUILD Infrastructure Research Centre, is instructive for making the case for public investment to reflect a broader concept of value. Similarly, Diane Coyle and Marianne Sensier have illustrated how the appraisal methodology in the Green Book has contributed towards regional imbalances in infrastructure investment. This echoes a theme taken up in a recent book by Andy Pike et al. on city statecraft and infrastructure, which argues that the specific approach adopted in the last decade to funding and financing major infrastructure projects in London has undermined broader attempts to strengthen regional economic performance.

Infrastructure by its nature is inherently political and more so in a relatively small country such as the UK. However, the existing technical mechanisms that are designed to inform decisions nationally have reinforced existing spatial concentrations of investment. How latent demand and opportunities in places outside of London and the Greater South East can be stimulated and supported should feature in any revised Green Book rules.

The second news item that received coverage between Christmas and the New Year was the story of the government’s intention to ‘create an MIT in the North’. This built on the messages in the Queens Speech, which set out the government’s vision to increase spending on R&D and innovation and establish a UK version of the American DARPA science-based institution. Contributions by Phillip Blond of the ResPublica think-tank, Tom Bridges and Justine Andrew’s blog for WonkHE and the UK2070 Commission have made the case for greater spatial re-targeting of R&D and innovation funding towards the north of England, partly through a new ‘eco-system’ of technology and applied-based research and innovation, which would be based on either new institutional arrangements or would build on existing regional assets.

In a joint paper published with the N8 Research Partnership last October, YU made the case for more national R&D and innovation funding to reflect the importance of ‘place’ and for such investments to be aligned more closely with local and regional development strategies and plans. The uneven geography of research capacity and funding reinforces spatial inequalities and undermines efforts to improve UK productivity. At the same time, Yorkshire needs to increase the demand amongst its private sector firms to undertake more innovation activity. YU members are uniquely placed to work with partners to widen and deepen innovation activity and to facilitate this through research and direct improvements in high-level and technical skills.

In relation to infrastructure and R&D and innovation, it is increasingly apparent that increases in total investment should be coupled with a greater and sustained focus on more places of opportunity. Here in Yorkshire, universities have the track records and diverse relationships to enable them to play a vital role in helping to ‘level up’ economically the UK regions, and address the complex challenges facing society.

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